“It seemed like I was always chomping at the bit, always just that little bit behind,” Tejay van Garderen says, leaning back in his chair. “I could go on forever about all the second places I’ve gotten. My list of victories is still pretty small.
“Everyone tells me be patient, but [I thought] maybe I’m doing something wrong, maybe I’m just not a winner.”
The candour and doubt takes you aback because it’s difficult to think of Tejay van Garderen as having reason to be troubled. He has always seemed to be the wunderkind of a stage racing generation, his performances standing out from the junior scene all the way through to the WorldTour.
“In the juniors and amateurs, you win a lot because the racing’s a bit easier, and I think less is expected of you. If you’re one of the better riders, you can win often. It kind of spoiled me, you get a feeling that’s how it’s supposed to be,” he reflects.
Six months into his professional career, Van Garderen finished third at the 2010 Dauphiné. That was the confirmation that he was the real deal, a dauphin himself, ready to succeed Greg LeMond and Lance Armstrong as the USA’s next great cycling export.
The regular stage race placings kept coming from then on, but van Garderen became increasingly bothered by the absence of a winning touch in this consistent excellence. By the middle of last year, he’d accrued 13 finishes between second and fifth place in stage races.
The barren spell was broken at last year’s Tour of California. It was a case of his career going full circle, given that his first ever professional race was the 2007 edition as a gawky 18-year-old who abandoned at the halfway mark. “That race has been a gauge for me, how far I’ve come in the sport,” he says.
That victory, part of a build-up where he hadn’t been out of a stage race top five overall, helped contribute to great expectations on the young American before last year’s Tour. Surely, after his promising fifth place and young rider’s jersey in the 2012 Tour, a podium was next.
Instead, everything fell apart. “I felt a bit like we didn’t really know exactly what the plan was. We had me, we had Cadel [Evans]; it was stated pretty clearly that Cadel was the leader,” van Garderen says. “[Before the pre-race press conference our general manager] Jim Ochowicz said: ‘Guys, we have some questions here. If anyone asks, we have one goal in the team: that’s get Cadel on the podium.’ It doesn’t get much clearer than that.”
But did you want to be leader, Tejay? “I didn’t necessarily want to be leader, but I wanted support… I didn’t want there to be one goal, I would have been happy to say ‘okay, Cadel can have three guys to support him on the flat stages, but give me two guys.’ I know that he’s also the leader, but I’d like it if I could get a little help too. Because I have a good shot as well.”
Did you ask for a little more support? “Well, yeah… but it was one of those things, in the meetings you don’t want to upset the… like I said, it was stated clearly that Cadel was the leader. At that point in time, I just had to accept it. Then in the back of my mind, I was thinking ‘okay, I’ll just piggyback off the team support, make sure I stay behind Cadel and then when we’re climbing, things will kind of sort themselves out.’”
That desired resolution never came. Before the first high mountains loomed, van Garderen lost time in a few crashes (“it was bad luck but part of it was also… maybe it should have been stated more clearly that guys needed to be helping me out through those flat stages to avoid that wreckage”) before BMC’s chances collapsed in the first Pyrenean stage. By the finish at Ax 3-Domaines, Evans had dropped four minutes, van Garderen 12.
He wanted to get away from this torrid Tour. “It was almost like ‘well, what are we doing here?’ That happened on the first mountain stage so the Tour felt like it was seven weeks long.”
The nadir was stage 11, the 33-kilometre Mont St-Michel time-trial. “Halfway through, I just gave up. I was even on a good time [second fastest at the 10km check, 18 seconds down on Tony Martin]. In a sport where you push yourself so hard, train so hard, everything you do is like ‘no quitting’, you ride and train in the rain. To just give up like that was a pretty low point for me."
Van Garderen rallied and made it into the winning break on the road to Alpe d’Huez, but Christophe Riblon eclipsed him after a long day in front. Another dreaded second place. He bounced back to register a comfortable win at the USA Pro Challenge a month later, but couldn’t escape frustration at the only blip. “I can’t say I’m disappointed with the season as a whole. If I could trade consistency for a good Tour de France, I would do that,” he says.
Over the last winter, Van Garderen made a couple of significant changes. He moved from the Italian city of Lucca, where he’d lived since turning professional, to Nice. He’s around more team-mates and BMC staff, there’s an international school for his young child and it’s a lot easier to get most amenities sorted than his gorgeous, but laidback, former Tuscan home.
He’s also working more closely with directeur sportif Yvon Ledanois, who joined BMC from Movistar at the end of 2012, a man whose influence he describes as huge.
Unsolicited, he returns to the doyen of the BMC team in mitigation five minutes later. “I feel like maybe I’m not casting Cadel in the best light, which wasn’t my intention because I have the utmost respect for him. He is a leader. And I’ve definitely learned that from him, what he expects of his guys, how he utilises the team.”
There ought to be no such ambiguity over team control this summer. As Ledanois puts it: “I have respect for Cadel, but Tejay van Garderen is the future for the BMC Racing Team.” For the first time, he’ll be the lone leader of the outfit for the Tour de France. The 2014 edition, back-loaded with Pyrenean mountains and a late, long time-trial around Dordogne wine country, looks well suited to him.
It’s a pivotal Tour for Tejay and his team. Part of the next group of contenders, just off the back of favourites Froome, Contador and Nibali, he needs to show that he hasn’t plateaued when in sight of the podium. BMC, meanwhile, left last year’s race with no stage wins and 17,710 Euros in prize money: barely enough to cover an Andy Rihs bottle of red.
So, does he think he can be the next American Tour de France winner? “I’m gonna have my work cut out if I ever get to that level, but I think I can,” he says.
Chris Froome is the outstanding obstacle, whose dominance shows no sign of abating. Van Garderen’s second place to the Briton in Oman, where we first talk at length, could be the first of a lot more podium finishes. Are we entering a Froome era of several, back-to-back Tour wins?
“I think Froome is setting the bar. Now it’s up to us to get there. I think that happens all the time: before Contador was the bar. And I don’t think Contador is any worse than he was a few years ago.
“But now, people realise ‘wow, I need to work that much harder’, be that much better, more disciplined, whatever you want to call it… records are set to be broken. Once one person runs a mile in under four minutes, all of a sudden you have ten other guys doing it.”
Between our relaxed chat in a hotel lobby in Muscat and a catch up by phone three weeks ago, a lot changes for Van Garderen. Gone is the disruption-free preparation of past years.
Sandwiched between abandoning Paris-Nice with food poisoning and the Tour of Romandie after a heavy prologue crash, it’s easy to overlook his stage win and third place overall at the Volta a Catalunya.
“You had Froome and Contador behind him,” says Ledanois. “It’s a small detail, but that was very important, his first WorldTour win. He now knows he has the legs to win a Tour, Vuelta, Giro, Dauphiné, whatever.”
Ledanois adds later: “I want to win a big race with him. It’s my objective, my goal, my obsession.”
Intriguingly, the directeur sportif also wants to see more audacity from a man who could understandably be expected to play it conservatively on climbs, then stomp over the other contenders with his superior time-trial ability. “He needs more aggressivité. [Former charges] Valverde and Quintana had this aggression, Tejay not much,” Ledanois says. “But step by step, now with the team, it’s coming."
Whether Van Garderen wins the Tour or not in Paris this summer – or ever – he is mature enough now to accept whatever happens. “I’ve done enough of the beating myself up over not having the best race,” he says. “Okay, at the  Tour de France, I got a little down about that. But if you beat yourself up every time a race doesn’t go exactly the way you planned it, you’re gonna be beating yourself up a lot.
"This sport takes time,” he adds. “A lot of people who win only two or three races a year are big champions. You have to be prepared to lose in cycling, otherwise it’s gonna be a hard life.”
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